The next few blog posts, I am quite certain, will be all about the stereotypical things that tourists do in France. I used to hate doing touristy things and be embarrassed by them; I burned with shame as I snapped photos of monuments and sights. Well, now I feel like sometimes, you just gotta do what you gotta do. I’m in France! Let’s be French!
Even though I learned French all through high school and into college, and visited Quebec regularly for ski races and camps over a period of five or six years, I haven’t been to France since the 1992 Olympics in Albertville. Then, I was almost five years old. Unsurprisingly I don’t remember much.
So this is my chance to get to know the place. Besides the bureaucratic nightmares and endless reams of paperwork that I seem to encounter on a daily basis, it’s pretty nice. On my first Saturday in town we decided to go to one of the traditional outdoor markets. Leaving our dormitories it was a beautiful blue-sky day – but don’t be fooled, it was windy and cold. Apparently around here people say that to know whether it will be cold on a winter day, you don’t look at the forecasted temperature – you look at the forecasted wind.
Katie (in the bottom left of the photo in the cute jacket) said she knew where to go, so we hopped on the tram and got off at a familiar stop, then walked up a long, winding hill on a narrow street with the buildings clambering above us. Eventually we reached the top and real, wider roads – one with a planting in the middle, leading down to a park. With an Arc de Triomphe. I guess every French city has one of their own, no big deal.
It was a gorgeous day. We were astounded – we signed up to go to the market, and we got to walk through this incredible park first? Sure, France, I’ll take it!
We climbed up and around the vaguely temple-like structure, which turned out to rather ingeniously house a water tank under its floor.
“The market is just down the side on the left,” Katie said.
And by the left, she meant to the left of the aqueduct. Because of course there’s an aqueduct! And of course on Saturday the farmers come and sell their vegetables under the shelter of its arches!
Finally, we reached the market, and were greeted by everything we’d hoped. Vegetables. Fruit. Fish from the sea, all sorts of meats, from whole gooses plucked except for their heads, to roasted chickens, to the most incredible variety of charcuterie. Bakers of bread and pastries. Cheesemakers hawking both dainty rounds of goat cheese and huge, several-kilo slabs of regional specialties that you could order 100 grams of and they’d slice you off a piece. Honey from so many different kinds of flowers, or if you preferred, honeycomb. Jams from every fruit in the region. Spices.
We walked all the way through the market, wondering as we went along. Each stall seemed more delicious than the next; how would we decide what to buy? We faced some tough choices, that would almost certainly be decided in a completely arbitrary manner.
I mean, I’ve been to many a farmer’s market in multiple states around the country. There was really nothing new here, minus the aqueduct. But it seemed so charming, the way they wrote the signs with big looping “2”s, and how I got nervous before I asked for something, afraid I’d mess up my French. In the end I walked away with a nice poppyseed-crusted sourdough loaf and a round of the goat cheese, which I have been snacking on ever since. It is delicious, and I don’t think that’s just because I’m seeing the world through French rose-colored glasses.
(It’s really unfortunate that my kitchen situation is so craptastic, because I could buy so many vegetables and other things and cook up a storm. Maybe I’ll write about kitchens later….)
The other highlight of the market were the vendors selling food to eat right there, or take home with you – more take home with you, it seemed, since none of them offered utensils. We were tempted by a giant pan of paella as we walked in, but by the time we returned it was gone. Next was the couscous with lamb, reminding me of all the delicious smells of Morocco. But with no forks we were sort of out of luck. We ended up buying samosas from one vendor and slices of quiche and tart from another, then hiking back up to the park to eat them.
Let me say this for fusion cooking: it can be great. Two of the samosas were traditional, and delicious. The other two had a French spin. One was basil and lemon, also yummy, but what knocked my socks off was a hot, steaming samosa filled with Roquefort cheese and crushed nuts. I am sure Indian cooks are rolling over in disgust, but I couldn’t believe how amazing it tasted. Sometimes you have to think outside the box, I guess.
Happy times – as touristy as it makes us look, I have a hunch we’ll be going back many a Saturday to do our shopping and grab a tasty lunch. Next time, I’m bringing a fork so I can dig in to that paella. Katie and Berenice agree.